Santa Barbara Investigation Finds No Conflict of Interest After ‘Los Angeles’ Report

A March article about the cannabis licensing and a city hall insider ignited an uproar

A March Los Angeles magazine story about an influential figure in Santa Barbara city government ignited an uproar in the community, leading to articles in the local media—some strongly questioning the original report—and prompting an independent investigation into the awarding of a license to operate a cannabis dispensary in the city.

That investigation, commissioned by the Santa Barbara Police Department, was completed recently. The 16-page report concludes that there was no conflict of interest between city employee Anthony Wagner, applicant Golden State Greens, or anyone else in the granting of the license.

Wagner was placed on administrative leave from his job as Police Department Public Engagement Manager by interim Chief Bernard Melekian on March 15, following the publication of the Los Angeles article. A Santa Barbara Police Department spokesman on the morning of Thursday, May 20, said that Wagner was still on administrative leave. No further information was available from the department as to when or whether he would be reinstated.

The article, titled “In Sleepy Santa Barbara, a City Hall Insider Is Raising Eyebrows,” was written by former city resident Mitchell Kriegman. It focused on Wagner, who began working for the city in 2017 as a spokesman for the police department, and who later took on other responsibilities, including serving on a five-person panel that in 2018 was evaluating applicants seeking to obtain Santa Barbara’s first cannabis dispensary licenses.

The article reported that Wagner had worked with cannabis businesses when he lived in San Diego, and that while serving on a commission in 2015 he approved granting a license for a medical marijuana dispensary to a man named Adam Knopf. Three years later, Knopf and his dispensary Golden State Greens applied for a license in Santa Barbara.

Los Angeles initially reported that Micah Anderson—who had previously worked with Wagner in San Diego on a trade organization called the Southern California Responsible Growers Council—was also an owner of Golden State Greens who applied for a dispensary license in Santa Barbara. Anderson’s name was later stricken from the online version of the story, and an update at the bottom now states, “The information we have been provided since the article was published shows that Mr. Anderson was neither an owner of Golden State Greens nor involved in the application process in Santa Barbara. We apologize for any confusion.”

Kriegman’s article caused a furor in Santa Barbara. A March 15 story on the local blog Newsmakers was titled “Deciphering the Bombshell L.A. Magazine Piece That Just Hit SB City Hall.” An article in the Santa Barbara Independent two days later bore the headline, “Lots of Innuendo But Little Substance in ‘Los Angeles’ Magazine Article.” A March 18 City of Santa Barbara press release announcing the independent investigation referred to the “seriously misleading and false assertions published in Los Angeles Magazine.” City Administrator Paul Casey went on to attest that the article contained “known errors and misstatements.”

Los Angeles Editor-in-Chief Maer Roshan said that covering cannabis in the community often generates a heated response.

“Santa Barbara’s complex relationship with the cannabis industry is a fraught subject that triggers a vocal response every time we cover it,” he said. “Mitchell Kriegman’s story on Santa Barbara Police Department spokesman Anthony Wagner was no exception. Kriegman, a veteran Santa Barbara journalist who has written for the Montecito Times and other local outlets, spent six months reporting the story for Los Angeles, interviewing Wagner’s colleagues, community members, admirers, and critics. His original 8,000-word draft underwent a succession of edits and a rigorous fact-check before it was published in much-condensed form on our website. A day after it went online, we quickly corrected an allegation that inaccurately linked Wagner to a local cannabis owner, information that was erroneously included in an official document compiled by the City of Pasadena. Aside from that, there were no significant factual mistakes in our piece. Contrary to a report in the Santa Barbara Independent, we did not retract the story. As a public official in a controversial post, Wagner has often faced criticism from vocal elements of the Santa Barbara community. While our article never suggested he engaged in any illegalities, we felt some of those criticisms merited additional scrutiny. The City of Santa Barbara apparently agreed. We respect the results of the investigation and stand by our story.”

Investigations firm the Sintra Group was hired to look into whether there was a conflict of interest in the dispensary licensing process. According to the report, investigators reviewed the original Los Angeles and later articles, and interviewed Wagner, Anderson, and other individuals. Wagner told investigators that he was part of approving Knopf’s license in San Diego in 2015 but said the two never had business dealings or a personal relationship, and that he had “zero” relationship with anyone from Golden State Greens. Knopf declined to speak with investigators, telling them in an email (which was part of the report), “Rather not get caught up in the fake news or fake investigation.”

The investigation found no wrongdoing.

“It is our opinion that there was no conflict of interest between Anthony Wagner, Golden State Greens, or any of the other applicants that participated in the City of Santa Barbara process. Golden State Greens was not given any preferential scoring treatment,” the report stated.

The report noted that three cannabis dispensary licenses were being handed out, and Golden State Greens initially finished fourth in the competition, and was not slated to receive a license. It moved up after one of the initial recipients was disqualified for being too close to another dispensary, a violation of municipal code.

The Los Angeles article reported that Knopf, before ever opening a dispensary, sold the license to a Florida company for several million dollars. The Sintra report said the sale occurred “after approximately one year of unsuccessfully trying to obtain the necessary building permits.”

The Los Angeles article also reported that Wagner could engage in aggressive behavior, describing an incident in which he allegedly got into an argument with a local resident, George Trujillo, in a 7-Eleven. The article says that Wagner told Trujillo, “You shut the fuck up.” It reported that Wagner was wearing a police badge around his neck, even though he was not a sworn officer.

The encounter was not addressed in the Sintra report.

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